Summer Reading 2015

As in previous years, some people have asked me what I've been reading during the summer.  For those interested, a list follows, in no particular order:

Anthony Trollope, The Warden

Aaron Ross, CEOFlow

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational

Simon Sinek, Start with Why

Anthony Trollope, The Way we Live Now

Otto Kroeger & Janet Thuesen, 16 Ways to Love your Lover

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Jon Katzenbach & Douglas Smith, The Wisdom of Teams

Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates us

Jonathan Sacks, Not in God's Name

Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing about Hard Things

Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor's Handbook (Meditations)

David Kantor, Reading the Room

Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History



Transition and the Beautiful Sound of Children

Sermon Notes 11/07/15 - Pinchas 5775

The three recent parshiot – Chukat, Balak and Pinchas are texts of transition.  Chukat includes a chronological transition, in which the narrative skips from the second year of the Israelites’ desert sojourn to the 40th, in which remainder of the Torah takes place.  Balak is a transition of perception, in which our ancestors emerged from the bubble of the wilderness to experience the hostility of others, presaging much of Jewish history.   And in today’s parashah, Pinchas, the people are prepared for leadership transition – Moshe knows that he will not enter the Land of Israel and hands the reigns to Yehoshua some months before his actual demise.

This has stimulated me to think about recent transitions in our community.  There have been so many changes, not least to the physical infrastructure and the way we deploy the space for davening (more of this in a future sermon and post).  But I’d like to focus on the fantastic growth in the number of young families and small children attending the Shul on Shabbat morning.  In a few years, we’ve changed from a community with just a handful of youngsters to one swamped with babies and children every week.  This is a tremendous blessing, but also a challenge, as it represents a completely new demographic reality for our community.  And it’s one that we  must get absolutely right to ensure that this growth continues and everyone, without exception, feels welcome and loved.  Periods of transition are fragile and must be handled extremely carefully.

Many of the new families enjoy participating in tefillah, but others come along only for the children’s programmes or to hang around with their friends.  I am delighted that we can provide a range of Shabbat morning experiences that attract the widest range of people and this means that there’s lots of unfamiliar noise every week – the beautiful sound of children playing and babies crying.  We’re doing our best to try to ensure that davening and children’s programmes are synchronised and to encourage parents to look out for their children, but it doesn’t always work.

Some of us may be troubled by the new sounds around our building, but I have one clear message – when there’s a baby crying during the sermon, exuberant children whooping outside during the kedushah or the announcements are drowned out by chatter, love it!


Dunstan Road's Three Embraces

Centenary Sermon

GGS 20/06/15

Shehecheyanu, Vekiyamanu, Vehigiyanu Laz’man Hazeh

I know that everyone here joins me in thanking God for having brought our community in good health to a vibrant 100 years young.

As well as marking our centenary, this week has seen the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta.  It is noteworthy that 100 years ago as we were founded, the 700th anniversary Magna Carta celebrations were cancelled due to the First World War.  That sobering thought provides an opportunity for reflection on how the world has changed in the 100 years that have circumscribed the life of our community to date.

This is not merely a curious coincidence, but a matter of great significance in the context of our community.  The importance of Magna Carta can’t be overstated: it had many flaws and foibles, but it remains the basis for the common freedoms, justice and fairness which have long characterised this wonderful country, the epitome of malchut shel chesed – a kind, benevolent jurisdiction within which we and other minorities can practice our religion freely.

At first glance, this seems scarcely worth mentioning, but throughout history, Jews have experienced prejudice and disadvantage in their host countries.  As we give thanks today to God for 100 years of the Jewish settlement and religious life in Golders Green, we owe much to the religious and lay visionaries who founded this congregation – and bless their memory today – yet we also give thanks for the conducive, loving and nurturing environment in which our great community has thrived.

I am often asked why wine is used to celebrate special occasions in Jewish life.  Whether it’s at a major life event such as a wedding or a brit or to mark the passage of time (kiddush to commence Shabbat and Yom Tov; havdalah when they conclude; seder night, etc), wine plays a major role.  The Vilna Gaon (d. 1797) offers an illuminating explanation for this.  He notes that there are two ways to understand our relationship with time.  The first recognises that everything in the physical world, including human beings, have a period of vigour after which they slowly decline into oblivion.  The second offers a more otherworldly perspective, in which we start life relatively ignorant and undeveloped and as we age, increase our spiritual capacities, and sensitivities.  The second, of course, is a Jewish way to conceive of the passage of time – as each Shabbat, festival cycle and major life-event passes, we ought to be aware of our growing spiritual capabilities.  As the only thing in the physical world that improves as it ages, wine represents our aspirations and encourages us to bear in mind Judaism’s mission for the spiritualisation of the material world.  In short, wine is perfect to convey the message that we get better as we get older.

It is in that vein that I invite everyone present to join me in celebrating the fine, delightfully-aged wine that is the Golders Green Synagogue, our beloved Dunstan Road community.  I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s an unpretentious but full-bodied vintage, one worthy of our love and gratitude.  We all feel deep appreciation for a century of Jewish history, tefillah, Torah study, fine leadership and inspiration.

What then are the unique selling points of our community?  How have we managed – with God’s help - to re-energise our congregation over the past few years?  What has enabled us to witness major membership growth, oversee the refurbishment of our infrastructure, build the wonderful Rimon School, and with a Shul bursting with young families on a Shabbat morning have been delighted to appoint Rabbi Sam and Hadassah Fromson to partner in developing the community?

I expect that every congregant past and present will have a different answer to this.  However, I will just mention three.  I’ve called them the three embraces:

·        First – the uncompromising embrace of serious, authentic Torah ideas. Communities that embrace learning and demand very high-quality content from their rabbinic leaders, thrive.  Torah lies at the heart of Dunstan Road.

·        Second - absolute embrace of a non-judgemental inclusivism.  We are delighted to welcome and provide high-quality Jewish life in all senses of the word for people of every level of commitment, belief, involvement and knowledge.

·        Third – the willingness to embrace tensions and recognise that we live within complex realities.  We recognise that our lives are characterised by competing demands: spiritual vs. physical; traditional Jewish life vs. modernity; subordination to community needs vs. expressing individuality.  Rather than denying these tensions or pretending that we can resolve them all, we acknowledge and embrace them and appreciate the creativity they engender.

We are proud to embrace these ideas, and I am proud to commit us to constantly bettering our provision in them all. And I am confident that they lie at the heart of our success.

It has been an extraordinary privilege to stand at the helm of this community for more than 12 years.  And it has only been possible in partnership with a host of remarkable individuals.  In my role as a rabbinic mentor, I’m often asked for advice in handling difficult lay leaders, but I can’t offer any, at least not from experience.  Vicki and I salute you and thank you from the bottom of our hearts; may God bless you all with health, success and the energy to do even more for our community.

Join with me in wishing our community lechaim, arichat yamim and a hearty mazal tov as we start our second century.  Thank you.